The post-Synod debate must not help foster a North-South divide

Archbishop Ignatius Ayau Kaigama of Jos, Nigeria, with a group of synod auditors (CNS)

I am waiting for the official English version of the Synod document to be published with some interest. There has been a huge amount of commentary on the Synod, some of it very good, some less so. One potentially alarming development (and there have been several) is the emergence of a nascent perceived split between North and South.

First, a bit of background. The North/South divide is something we are familiar with from the recent history of the Anglican Communion. The ‘narrative’, as they love to call it, goes something like this: the Anglicans of the United States and the United Kingdom are rich in resources, but with dwindling congregations, and dwindling faith. They are the historic leaders in Church matters, but countries like Nigeria have huge congregations, are full of faith, though lacking resources. Nigeria and other parts of the global South hold to traditional teaching, and find themselves at variance with the more liberal North. Who prevails? The rich North, or the poor South? The faithful South, or the revisionist North? And one can add into this the question of neo-imperialism, culture and race. Are the Nigerians simply not up to speed on the way understandings of moral questions have changed? Add to that the real background question: is Christian teaching on morals something that can change? Or are there really things that can be called Eternal Verities?

Thanks to a series of unfortunate events at the recent Synod, such as Cardinal Kasper’s now notorious ‘non-interview’ and the perceived manipulation of the various relations, this North/South narrative has made the leap from the Anglican Communion to the Catholic Church. In the context of the Catholic Church, the narrative would go something like this.

Germany has the money (thanks to the Church tax); along with America, it largely foots the bill for the global Church. Germany is also, thanks to its university system, the number one country for theology. (We can all agree on that, by the way: the world’s greatest living theologian, J. Ratzinger, is Bavarian.) But Germany, again perhaps thanks to the Church tax, is a place where the faith is dying. (Here too, there should be no debate, and we can cite Benedict XVI). In strong contrast, the Church is growing in places such as Korea and Kenya, and other countries beyond its traditional heartland. Can we honestly expect German theologians to continue to teach the faith to the Africans and Asians on matters such as sexual morality? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

All this opens up what is popularly called a can of worms, or in theological speak, a variety of challenges about the foundations of theology. This isn’t simply a dispute between places where Humanae Vitae is accepted and places where it is by and large rejected, though it is that too: this is above all a question about how you do theology. So here are a few observations.

First, go back to the Creed: the Church is one, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. No country or culture can claim a privileged position when it comes to faith. It is true that we all perceive the truths of faith through the prism of culture and language, but faith is a universal, something to which all are called, whatever our cultural background.

Second, on the question of the purse strings. It was Judas who kept charge of the common fund in the college of the apostles. Remember him? Enough said.

Thirdly, remember that the Spirit blows where it wills. Or to put this into language that liberals will immediately recognise, God reveals Himself to us in history, through our historical context, in the midst of our lived situation. Now, some people at the Synod would perhaps have liked to stress that we must listen to the experiences of those who live in non-traditional families. But surely far more important is that we listen to all those who are living out the Christian vocation in difficult circumstances in places such as the slums of Nairobi. We need to practice discernment here: we must listen to all voices, evaluate all experiences; and we need to listen to the powerful witnesses to virtue wherever they come from.

Fourthly, though God’s revelation of Himself happens in history, it is also true to say that there are unchanging Eternal Verities, which are accessible to the human reason on its own, unaided, and even more so when aided by scripture and tradition. The good of the person can be grasped by us as an objective truth, though this may take time. And so it is that people in Africa are coming to see FGM and polygamy, formerly deeply rooted in their culture, and irreconcilable with the good of the person. And the opposite is true: cultural factors can foster error, and this seems to be the case in Europe and North America, where habitual wrongdoing can lead to the idea that the habitual bad is the new normal. Human nature cannot stand much reality, and we can fool ourselves: this is where scripture and tradition help us in our doubts. The Africans, in their strong opposition to certain aspects of modern Western culture, have the backing of scripture and tradition. This means, simply put, they are not wrong.

The idea that a Synod should degenerate into debate between North and South is something that we need to resist at all costs. Any talk of North and South is in fact an attack on the Catholic nature of the Church, as well as the unity of the Church. I spent four years teaching moral theology in Africa. We are one Church, and we believe one Faith. God forbid it should be otherwise. The greatest of our theologians were once African – I mean Cyprian and Augustine, as well as the Desert Fathers in Egypt. I look forward with hope to a time, which may already have come, when theological voices from Africa will correct error once more.


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